Fairy Tales 2010

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Male Ideal

Iron Hans is at its root a story to teach a young boy how to be an "ideal man". The character at the heart of the story is, of course, the young boy/gardener/prince. He goes through a series of trials meant to teach him how to be a man, and in the end he gets the princess because he exemplifies the qualities that were hammered into him during the course of the story. Hans shows one side of the male ideal, that of the gruff woodsman and excellent warrior. He epitomizes the wild side of a man, a side that apparently all males should contain within them. However, this side need not take over the outward appearance of a man and should only show up when engaged in violent activities such as war. This is shown by the fact that the young man receives all of this equipment and army from Iron Hans before heading off to war, and he returns them before getting back. In many ways, Iron Hans is analogous to being a part of the boy's inner psyche, one that should always be there, but should only appear when it is needed.

Another side the boy learns while at the court of the emperor as a gardener. He learns to be modest and humble, traits which are also becoming for a male. However, it is not all about the inner self of the man; men also must look good to catch the eye of the princess. The princess first notices the boy not because of his modesty or humbleness, or his skill at war, but rather for his striking looks, especially the hair. So men must have a good exterior to match the good interior. Lastly, a man must fulfill his destiny and not try and change it. The boy was born a prince, and although he was off working and learning to be a man this was only a temporary activity. This shows how the tale supports the social structure of the time: one is born into one's final activity, but one must take active steps to be the best that one can be at that activity.

So, all in all this tale discusses the ideal of "maleness", and what it should and should not entail. It does not so much teach young men as give them an example for their final product.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Question: How many times do males need to fail before they can succeed?

Answer: 3.
Iron Hans begins with the story of a king who sends a huntsman into the forest who never returns. The next day he sends two huntsmen who never return. What does he do the following day? Sends more huntsmen who meet the same fate. It is only after failing three times that the king can learn not to send anymore into the forest. This in itself says a great deal about the male educational process.
The same educational process happens with the boy. He has a simple task: keep things out of the water, yet he fails three times. Only then can he move on to another task. It takes the boy three requests of Iron Hans before he can win the war. Iron Hans also must have his name called three times before he can respond. All of this repetition, while required my male stubbornness or stupidity, is nevertheless rewarded by riches, weddings, or spells breaking.
Funny how females never get a second chance. They drop the key once and they deserve to die.

Picture, If You Will, a Good Character… Now Pretend It's Not a Lie

The characters of any fairy tale (and almost any other type of story) are such typical stereotypes of polarized good vs. evil paradigms as to make the story almost laughable. The fairy tales are almost all populated by the same stock characters used to incite the reader's (listener's) internal biases and predispositions in order that the plot be made much more simplistic and almost all need for exposition is eliminated. The teller of the tale need not even describe the character beyond a title for the audience to have prescribed all of the necessary background, subtext, and emotional investment. Automatically, the prince is a hero, the princess a prize for him to WIN by means of a certain form of trial, the devil is a villain that gets outwitted by the hero, the beastly man is a king/prince under a spell and therefore inherently good and misunderstood. These make most fairy tales follow the same types of trends.

In the male growth/triumph stories, the social values of the people are presented in the ways in which the characters are portrayed. Handsomeness and royalty are two of the highest values, followed by wealth with modesty. Cheerfulness and cleverness follow in kind. If the hero is not liked by all, then the credibility is diminished. That is what allows them to overcome the devil or witch or spell.

The Godfather Death story was especially interesting for the very distinct ways in which the story itself broke the stereotypes of most conventional stories. The first major difference is obviously how, in the conclusion, the hero fails in his quest. There is a type of poetic justice and dramatic irony presented in the tale that most fairy tales lack. Also noteworthy is the reason Death is chosen and how that becomes the boy's undoing. It is interesting that the boy wins the princess still, however, even though he dies before being able to collect his prize.

All in all, the male heroes tend not to change over the course of the story beyond superficialities. The "individualized" or "distinguishing" traits that they have at the beginning are the same reasons that they are successful in the end. The only thing that changes is their geography.

Wild Men make great kings

The "Wild Man" stories present an interesting contradiction. The wild man is perceived to be wild, untamed, and uncivilized, and therefore is not to be trusted. However, it eventually is revealed that the wild man is a kingly figure, and rewards the young boy who assists him with a kingdom of his own. The reader is supposed to be wary of the wild man, but at the same time understands that he is more than a simple beast. He embodies certain characteristics that are intended to be positive in a masculine sense, while simultaneously serving as an unknown and untrustworthy character.

Especially in the shorter of the two versions, the wild man is portrayed as a drunk, and it is his "despicable" desire for alcohol that ultimately leads to be captured in the first place. The puritan writers of the story clearly intend his alcoholic consumption to be a vanity, an aspect of his character that the audience will despise. However, he is ultimately revealed to be a king, albeit one under an unexplained spell, which explains his drunken behavior.

The wild man is a contradiction precisely because he is intended to be admired and distrusted simultaneously. Although it is not apparent at the outset that he is a king, his bearing combined with the audience's knowledge of fairy-tale types leads one to understand that there is more to him than meets the eye.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Iron Hans: Responsibility

I feel the overall moral of Iron Hans is that one must learn how to take responsibility for their actions. The king's son looses his ball. He can leave the ball in the cage and take responsibility for loosing it. He could also tell his parents and get help from them. Instead he chooses to deal with it on his own. When he gets his ball back, he realizes that he will get in trouble for letting the prisoner free and leaves with the prisoner to avoid taking responsibility for what he has done. When Iron Hans asks the kid to guard the spring, the kid fails three times and doesn't take responsibility for what has happened. He tries desperately to hide his failure and is kicked out of the forest because of it. When the kid gets to the kingdom, he still doesn't take responsibility for he has done. He tries to hide his hair because it reminds him of his inability to handle responsibility. His growth into a man is shown through his decision to complete selfless deeds for the kingdom and through the fact that he doesn't take on a character focused upon greed. He finally takes responsibility for his actions when he tells the truth to the king and no longer attempts to hide behind the cap on his head.


Bearskin is a tale filled with morals. The major one is that if you are good and generous you will wind up living a happy life. The main character in the story makes a deal with the devil that if he doesn't wash, shave, or cut his nails for seven years he will receive riches. The man is never tempted to go back on the deal and instead spends the seven years doing everything he can to help others so that they will pray for him. In the end, he makes it through and is given great wealth and his handsome face back.
This theme is also shown through the woman that the main character winds up marrying. When Bearskin helps her father, her father offers one of his daughters to him as thanks. The two older sisters find him repulsive and refuse to associate with him but the youngest is kind and thankful for what Bearskin did and so agrees to marry him. She is rewarded when Bearskin's seven years are up and she ends up with a handsome, wealthy husband.
Another theme is that the wicked get punished. The two older daughters both want Bearskin after he returns since he is now handsome and rich. They cannot have him however and so they kill themselves.
The deaths of the older sisters also adds a bit of a dark cast to the otherwise happy ending. Although it is the two "bad guys" in the story who die, the story ends on the note of the devil saying how he has won after all because he got two souls out of the bargain rather than just Bearskin's.

Clever Hans

Reading Clever Hans, it seems that this particular fairy tale is meant for humor, rather than adventure or moral example. Hans continues to go back and forth from Gretel's house to his own, asking for and retrieving gifts, and all the while is being chastised by his mother for doing things wrong. In Hans' defense, he is just doing what his mother is telling him to do, but unfortunately he ends up with a calf on his head and his bacon on a leash. This tale is much different from the traditional coming of age tales. Instead of venturing into the wild and becoming a man with flowing golden hair, Hans ends up lonely after cutting out the eyeballs of all of the livestock and throwing them at Gretel. In fact, by the end of the story it does not seem that Hans has changed even a little bit! This tale, unlike the others, obviously was not meant to teach an example for young coming of age men. It seems that even 18th and 19th century Germans needed a little slapstick comedy, too.

Godfather Death

Unlike other tales we have read this week, Godfather Death does not include any type of detail about the young boy. In this story, the father was simply a poor man and needed a godfather for his thirteenth child. After a careful selection process, he chooses Death as the right match for the job. After we learn this, the tale is absent of the boy's growth into manhood. Instead, we are just told that "when the boy was old enough, his gosfather appeared one day and told him to come along with him." Does this mean that Death had not seen his godson until now? Where is his mother? How have things faired for the boy? We don't know and these things simply remain as mysteries. The boy becomes a famous doctor and as readers we are left out of any information that would give us a sense of whether he is ready for such a title or not. Clearly, however, he is not because he disobeys Godfather Death and has to pay the price with his life. In other tales, like "Clever Hans" or "The Wild Man" we see the boy grow into a man, and in the end he lives happily ever after. What are we then to make of the omission of the doctor's boyhood and the ending of this particular fairytale? Do they have some sort of correlation?